** Yes, I know, it’s been too long, and I’m not even going to try to explain. I’m back to writing, and that’s what’s important, eh? You might want to go and read the re-post of Part 13. I’ve made a few corrections, plus it’ll refresh your memory a bit. Thanks for hanging in there with me; I really appreciate it. **
by A. K. Naten
For disclaimers, etc., see Part One.
Anton dreamt of her. She could sense her presence; a warm, loving sensation that filled her with peace. She could smell her scent; the light, pleasant lingering of lavender and wildflowers that always clung to her soft skin and golden hair. She imagined her voice; the smooth, soothing tones and melodious ripples of her girlish laughter. She pictured her face; so gentle and innocent, so open and friendly, as though she constantly kissed everyone she spoke to. And her eyes...so deep and revealing. One look into those beautiful oceanic eyes always told Anton everything Gwynneth was thinking.
...I need to see her.
Anton slowly opened her eyes, wishing fervently that her wife would be standing at her bedside. But alas, as her vision cleared, she found that she was alone. It was still dark, and only the soft howling of the wind could be heard in the silence. She sighed, feeling frustrated, and lonely.
The Marquess was beginning to get stir-crazy. It was driving her mad to lie here in her room, immobile and unaware of anything outside her chamber door. She received ‘reports’ from her mother, but she was tired of that. Her mother repeatedly dodged her questions about Gwynneth, giving only excuses instead of answers. The only thing she would say is that the young Lady was dreadfully unhappy and wished to leave Weldon, which saddened Anton greatly.
Even though she realized Gwynneth had to be extremely upset, Anton still found it hard to imagine that the young woman would really and truly want to leave. She supposed Gwynneth’s confusion and anger were great, but she was pregnant and due with a child at any moment; surely she couldn’t expect to just pick up and move away? Her mother had said that Gwynneth remained sullen and uncommunicative, but were things really so bad that the young Lady felt she needed to leave everything and everyone so urgently? Anton didn’t want to believe it, didn’t want to believe what her mother told her. So, she decided she would no longer trust what she could not see with her own eyes nor hear with her own ears. She would not believe what her mother told her about Gwynneth; she would only believe it if she heard it herself.
I can no longer live in a world of make-believe, Anton thought. And I can’t be a fool any longer. I can’t rely on what others tell me.
Her fingers massaged the tiny braid of Gwynneth’s hair, still miraculously in her possession, as she considered how foolish she’d been.
I have been naive and careless, and I have trusted too much. I put faith in false allies and silly superstitions that said a snippet of hair would keep me safe and make everything all right. I believed I could live a lie and get away with it. Now everything is ruined. The happy life that I once had is gone. Anton’s eyes welled with tears and she closed them. I must get out of this bed...I must see Gwynneth...I have to convince her that we can work things out.
She drew a deep breath and released it as she began to mentally devise a plan that would allow her to get out of bed long enough to see her wife.
Marina marched down the long corridor, her brisk footsteps taking her directly to her daughter-in-law’s chambers. With no preamble, she burst through the door, startling Gwynneth, who was sitting at her writing table, her inked quill poised in mid-sentence.
“Well, I hope you’re satisfied.” Marina angrily snapped as she came to stand in front of the surprised blonde.
Gwynneth frowned, annoyed with the rude intrusion and the woman before her. “Whatever are you talking about?”
“In a ridiculous attempt to get out of bed so that he could come and see YOU, Anton took a dreadful fall!”
Blue-green eyes widened and Gwynneth’s mouth opened, but no sound came forth.
“Because you have refused to go and speak to him, he got it in his mind that he had to come to you. And now he’s re-injured himself. So...I hope you’re satisfied!” Marina’s voice was snarling.
Gwynneth’s temper flared and she tossed her quill aside. “What would satisfy me, My Lady, is for you to stop attacking me and leave me alone!”
Marina stepped closer, “This is what you have to say for yourself? I tell you that your husband has been badly hurt, and all you can say is ‘leave me alone’?” her voice was incredulous, “What kind of person are you! What kind of wife are you?!”
Gwynneth bolted out of the chair, “I am the kind of person who will not be blamed for people and things which are out of my control! And since it seems to have slipped your mind, let me remind you that nothing around here is within my control, My Lady – NOTHING!” Her voice echoed loudly off the room’s stone walls and Marina actually took a step backwards. She had not expected such vehemence from the little blonde.
The two women stared at each other for a moment until Gwynneth could no longer stand. She shook her head and collapsed back into the chair, tears immediately flooding her eyes. Covering her face with her hands, she began to weep.
Marina closed her eyes, bringing a hand to her forehead. Things just seemed to keep getting more complicated and more dreadful. Her hand slid down to her mouth and she opened her eyes, looking upon her daughter-in-law’s pathetic, sobbing form. As much as the older woman hated to admit it, what Gwynneth said was true; nothing was within anyone’s control, it seemed.
She felt for the young woman, truly, but things didn’t have to be as bad as Gwynneth made them out to be. If only she would heed my advice and listen to reason! Marina thought. It frustrated her beyond belief that she could not control or dissuade Gwynneth’s actions and reactions. The little blonde was infuriatingly willful and surprisingly resilient. She confounded Marina, which only served to fuel her frustration.
Marina was angry that Anton had been so brutally attacked; she was angry that their grand secret had been exposed; she was angry that Gwynneth was being so retaliatory, and she was angry that she could do nothing about any of it. If she were honest with herself, Marina would have to admit that this was what really had her most distressed: that she was not in control. In a sudden burst of lucidity, she realized that she and Gwynneth were upset about the very same thing: Neither one of them had control. A wave of sad irony washed over Marina, and she suddenly felt as though she might burst into tears as well.
But she knew that she could not give up on the situation. Marina remained convinced that Gwynneth still loved Anton. She just needed to help her realize it. The older woman decided that a change of tactics was in order. Gwynneth obviously was not going to respond to force, so perhaps a softer, more emotional approach would work. The two women had been friendly before; maybe Gwynneth would respond if Marina simply dropped her defenses and appealed to her with honesty, as a friend, and a mother.
The Marchioness Dowager drew a deep breath and released it noisily, gathering her calm and her nerve. Finding another chair, she pulled it over and sat down beside her distraught daughter-in-law. Marina sighed, “Gwynneth,” she began quietly, “this insanity must cease. The way you and I have become with one another...it’s so unpleasant. I detest it. I detest it, and...I apologize for it.” Marina watched the blonde carefully, but got no response. She sighed unsteadily, her hands twisting in her lap as she continued, “I have blamed much of this dilemma on you, and I have released my frustrations upon you. This is wrong of me...I know it. I...I must apologize to you.”
Gwynneth finally dropped her hands away from her face and looked at Marina with wary, red-rimmed eyes.
“Anton means everything to me...everything. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect him...to protect her. I always have, and I always shall. She is my child, Gwynneth. She was special before, but she is extraordinarily special now, because she is all I have left.” Marina’s voice wavered uncharacteristically and tears quickly flooded her deep blue eyes. “Can you understand that?” A droplet broke free and dribbled down her cheek, “Can you?”
Gwynneth still eyed Marina, her eyebrows furrowed with suspicion. “I do understand, My Lady, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely trust your tears.”
Marina gave a rueful snort and nodded, “I know this. I know I have been dreadful to you...inexcusably dreadful.” She looked squarely at the blonde, “But I do apologize. I have no explanation except to say that my fierce need to protect Anton clouded my mind and skewed my judgment where you were concerned.” Gwynneth still regarded her silently. “I realize that the one who should take the blame is me.” Marina shrugged her shoulders. “Anton was injured, and in my mind, you were adding to his injuries by denouncing and denying him...by saying that you wanted to leave him. My reaction was purely instinctive. I could only see that you did not care.”
Gwynneth’s eyes began to fill again. “I did care,” her voice wobbled, “and I care now, I just...I just...” Her mouth opened but the words would not come. She had no voice for her thoughts when it came to her convoluted feelings about Anton. Tears spilled from her eyes and she whispered pathetically, “...I do care.”
Marina reached out and touched her arm, “Then don’t leave.” Gwynneth drew a shaky breath and look at her mother-in-law. “I don’t blame you for feeling confused and angry, Gwynneth – truly I do not – but don’t just give up. Don’t turn your back on Anton. Please.”
Marina’s eyes held her beseechingly, and Gwynneth felt her walls of strength weakening further.
“He needs you. He needs his wife.”
Gwynneth exhaled sharply and closed her eyes, “But I don’t know if I can be a wife to...him.” The words nearly stuck in her throat. “I don’t think I can live the lie that you want me to live!” The strength of her voice increased as her conviction rose, “Anton deserves to have someone who can make him happy.” Gwynneth stared at Marina, shaking her head slowly, “And I don’t think I can be that someone.” More tears clouded her vision and she fought to keep them at bay. “If I were to leave, perhaps...perhaps he could find someone else—”
“Anton doesn’t want you to leave.”
“He may think so now, but what happens when he realizes that I can no longer devote myself to him? He will grow weary of me, and there will come a time when he will wish to replace me with someone who can fulfill his...needs.” Gwynneth’s cheeks reddened as she stumbled to express her intimate fears.
“That time will never come.” Marina shook her head, “You are the one who fulfills his needs. No other could take your place.”
Gwynneth dropped her eyes and shook her head, “I don’t think I shall be able to fulfill anything, My Lady.” She glanced up again, “And when Anton realizes this, I do not expect that he will want me still.” Her voice dropped lower, “I do not expect that he will love me still.”
Marina leaned forward and touched her arm again, “Don’t you think you’re making decisions a bit prematurely, dear? You haven’t given anything, or anyone, a chance just yet. You’re making far too many assumptions and judgments.” She leaned in further, forcing Gwynneth to lock eyes with her, “Anton loves you, Gwynneth...he’ll continue to love you, just as he always has. Just as you loved him.”
Gwynneth squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, “No...whatever love I felt is gone. Don’t you understand? It’s gone, along with the man I thought I married!”
“But that man isn’t gone, Gwynneth; he is still alive! Alive and well inside Anton’s heart and soul!” Marina searched the young Lady’s face. She could see that Gwynneth was uncertain and torn. She had to press onward. “It is true that he is not a man, physically, on the outside, but it is not true that he is someone different on the inside. He is the same person he always was. You are the one who thinks differently, Gwynneth. You see Anton now with different eyes, but he sees you just as he always has. His feelings for you have not changed.”
Gwynneth looked at Marina with doubt, shaking her head. “Everything has changed, My Lady. Everything is different now, whether he cares to accept it or not.”
“It is different only in a physical sense, Gwynneth. If you would only look beyond Anton’s body...if you would look inside him, into his heart, you would see that the same person you loved still resides there...waiting for you.”
Tears spilled down Gwynneth’s cheeks and she shook her head again and turned away. Her emotions teetered dangerously on the brink of utter collapse. She pushed herself up off the chair and regarded Marina mournfully, “I...I can’t, My Lady. I just...can’t.” she whispered, tears continuing to spill from her eyes as she turned and began to walk away.
Marina shot up from her chair and quickly reached out to grasp Gwynneth’s arm, turning her back to face her, “I find it so terribly tragic that you seem to feel you must pull away and punish Anton, and yourself, just when the two of you need each other the most.” Gwynneth’s mouth dropped open and she stared as Marina continued, “When you feared that your beloved husband had been killed, you broke down, nearly losing your mind as your heart was plucked from your chest and torn asunder! Do you remember?” Gwynneth could only blink her response. “And then, by some miracle, we found out that Anton was alive. He came back to you...for you! How can you even think about stabbing him so brutally in the back?”
Gwynneth twisted her arm out of Marina’s grasp, “I am thinking no such thing!” Her voice was tremulous even though she tried to look assured.
“Liar,” Marina sniffed. “You plainly speak of leaving – if you do, you’ll drive a stake right into his back and straight through his heart. Such an injury would do more damage than any battle wound ever could. You will destroy him, and you know it.” She glared at the younger woman, but Gwynneth’s eyes held firm. “The way you’ve been behaving makes me think that you’re trying to destroy yourself too. I wonder if perhaps you wished for your body to lie rotting in a grave, like your brother’s.”
“I wish nothing of the kind!” Gwynneth finally snapped, her eyes flashing, angry and incensed. “And don’t you dare speak to me about my brother! He was a villainous traitor! A soulless killer with a black heart! I am nothing like my brother!”
“No, my dear, you aren’t.” Marina’s voice calmed and quieted. “You have a beautiful heart. A kind, loving, compassionate heart. What a pity it is that you should allow it to turn black and barren.”
Gwynneth scowled at the older woman, her voice indignant, “You stand here and speak to me as though you know my heart. But how could you? You only see a heart as something to be lied to and bandied about like some sort of play-thing. Well it isn’t!”
“No, you’re right, it isn’t. But it also isn’t a lifeless corpse to be buried deep within the ground.” Marina gently laid her hand over Gwynneth’s heart, which beat rapidly. Gwynneth gasped slightly in surprise, her eyes widening at her mother-in-law’s unexpected touch. “How alive your heart is, Gwynneth,” Marina said softly. “How alive and full of love, understanding and forgiveness.” She looked at the young woman pleadingly, “Will you not give it a chance? Will you not give Anton a chance? Or will you simply allow your beautiful heart to become empty and withered?”
As the older woman’s words struck a chord within her, Gwynneth’s eyes welled with hot tears. “The only empty place I have is the one that weeps for my husband’s loving touch,” she said, her voice quiet and unsteady.
Marina shook her head, regarding her daughter-in-law incredulously. “But that touch still exists, Gwynneth! It is waiting to bestow itself on you, if only you’ll allow it. If you could just look past the physical disparities and peer inside...you would find that things are the same. Nothing has to change!”
Gwynneth squeezed her eyes shut as the tears began to course down her face again. She shook her head, bringing her hands up to hold her head in surrender. “Enough...enough, please! I am tired of this torment...I am so tired!” Her voice was an anguished whisper, and Marina’s heart constricted with sympathy.
The Marchioness Dowager’s sigh was deep and sad. She brought a hand up to rub at her forehead, supposing that she would have to concede defeat. ...But only momentarily.
Leaning in close, Marina whispered in Gwynneth’s ear, “Go to Anton...speak with him...give him a chance...give yourself a chance. That is all I ask.” She didn’t wait for a response as she turned and left Gwynneth in the solitary silence of her room.
For several days and nights, Gwynneth drove herself mad with thoughts. She considered everything Marina had said, she considered the past, she considered the future, and still, nothing made any sense to her. She found herself staring at her wedding ring quite often. She would often sit and stare at the smooth, polished metal, spinning in around her finger, even taking it off now and then, imaging what it would be like if she went away and simply disappeared.
She had to admit that the idea of being on her own was quite frightening. She had come to love Weldon and its people; her leaving would be from necessity only. But, she continually asked herself, would it be absolutely necessary? What if things didn’t turn out as terrible as she’d been imagining? What if she could make amends enough to arrive at some kind of understanding with Anton, and life returned to near-normalcy? Could that even be a possibility? Could they perhaps attain some sort of amicable, platonic relationship and continue to live together at Weldon – or would he insist that she continue to serve as his wife, in every way? This was what troubled her most. Would Anton demand things from her that she could not give? She didn’t want to believe that he would, but she really had no way of knowing. The future held so many uncertainties. The only way she could get some answers was to speak to Anton, and that thought unnerved Gwynneth to her very core.
She had snuck in to see her husband several times, however, she’d made sure each time that he was asleep before entering his line of vision and approaching the bed. She didn’t touch him or sit beside him as she did before; she would simply stand and look at him for a few silent moments, thinking, remembering and wondering before turning and leaving as quietly as she entered. Gwynneth supposed it was cowardly of her to sneak around in such a way, but she just wasn’t ready to speak to Anton. Not just yet. Really, she wasn’t even sure if the visits were doing her good or harm, for after every visit, she felt no clarity or resolution. The only thing she ever seemed to feel was uncertainty and lingering sense of betrayal.
Night fell swiftly as a rainstorm blew in, enshrouding the manor in damp darkness and vibrating the walls now and then with a deep rumble of thunder.
Gwynneth sat in her room, reading by the light of a few flickering candles. She had been looking back through her journals, reading what she’d written about her life and her husband. Looking over things now, with newly changed feelings and an altered perception, Gwynneth was surprised at how obvious she had been about her devotion to Anton. She had written freely of her happiness and her love for him...and she’d written of her fear of losing him. Reading over the latter entries, when Anton had gone off to war, Gwynneth recalled her terrible worries and fears. And, she remembered the pain and madness she’d felt when she learned that she’d nearly lost him.
One journal entry in particular was especially painful. She’d written it after she’d learned that Anton had been hurt, yet did not know whether he lived or died. The way it read made it seem like a heart-wrenching elegy, and Gwynneth’s heart constricted as a wave of sad recollection washed over her.
Another entry was about the troublesome dream she’d had over and over. After reading it, Gwynneth realized how strangely prophetic that dream had been. She had dreamt that Anton had been killed, but she’d also dreamt of a ghostly, spectral woman – a woman, perhaps, who symbolized Anton’s true self. It left Gwynneth feeling perplexed, just as it had before, and she found herself wondering: had she somehow suspected, perhaps subconsciously, that Anton was a woman all along? Had she suspected, but pushed it aside, denying and refusing to even give it one moment of conscious thought? She knew she had found Anton peculiar in some ways, but had she ever had doubts about his sexuality? She didn’t remember ever thinking that. Was it possible to deny and bury a doubt so thoroughly that you couldn’t even remember having it? She didn’t know.
Sighing aloud, Gwynneth felt her eyes fill with tears of frustration again. She squeezed them shut, feeling a trickle of wet warmth dribble down her cheeks. It seemed as though her confusion would never end. She didn’t know why she was reading through her journal; it seemed like she was just torturing herself. But really, Gwynneth knew that she was searching – searching for a way to convince herself or prove to herself that she still felt something for Anton...that she could still love him.
Every time she went to visit Anton, she’d stare at him, waiting for some great flood of emotion to overwhelm her and wash away the anger and doubts she had. But that never happened. When she looked at him lying on his bed, covered up with clothes or blankets, she saw her husband. But, beneath the fabric, hidden from view, was someone different. Yes, Anton was still the same person on the inside, of that Gwynneth was certain – It was the person on the outside that she had difficulty coming to terms with. It was the image of a female body that lingered in the back of her mind, rekindling her uncertainties and reminding her of the betrayal.
Gwynneth sniffled and wiped at her eyes, resolving to stop crying and calm down. It was dark and she was so tired. She returned the letters to their hiding place, thinking that she should just go to bed. Hearing a distant rumble of thunder, she wondered if Anton was awake. Her husband always awoke when it stormed, and she remembered him remarking once that he loved the sound of rain and thunder. She smiled softly as she recalled the times when the two of them would lie awake in bed, holding each other in tender silence while listening to the pattering of the rain. Those quiet times had been some of her favorite moments with him.
She wondered if she could sneak in and see Anton before retiring for the night. Perhaps just for a moment, she thought as she turned and exited her room.
Anton’s room was very dark when Gwynneth entered. She closed the door as quietly as possible and crept further inside. Hesitantly peering around the partially open canopy, Gwynneth saw that Anton was asleep. She stood for a moment, her eyes taking in and absorbing each and every detail, as she always did.
The Marquess was still quite pale and frail looking. Remembering how much blood he’d lost, Gwynneth wondered if he would ever fully regain his health. It was such a shame. Anton had been one of the most active, healthy, robust people she new. And now, knowing that Anton was a woman, Gwynneth was even more amazed at Anton’s strengths and abilities. What a tragedy it would be to see such vitality wither away.
Gwynneth’s gaze drifted as she pondered, and she was unaware of the eyes that fluttered and opened before her. When Anton’s head moved slightly, Gwynneth looked back, gasping in surprise and jerking backward just a bit. Her instinct was to turn and flee, but for some reason, she couldn’t make herself move. Something in those glassy, empty depths held her there, and she could only hold her breath. Anton’s light blue eyes were so pale they appeared almost silver in the dim light of the room, and his expression was one of mild confusion as the two of them stared at each other for a moment.
Slowly, Anton’s mind began to register that she wasn’t dreaming; Gwynneth really was here with her. She blinked her eyes and her mouth fell open, but no words ushered forth; she could only stare. Gwynneth glanced away for a moment, unnerved by Anton’s wide-eyed appraisal. The discomfort in Gwynneth’s countenance was obvious, but Anton still found her lovely. Lovely, but weary, for the Lord couldn’t help but notice her wife’s washed-out, hollow-eyed appearance. The thought of Gwynneth suffering in any way pierced Anton’s heart, and she immediately wished she could just hold the younger woman and soothe her troubles away. But she knew she couldn’t do that; Gwynneth’s troubles were because of her.
Still averting her eyes, Gwynneth cleared her throat, “It’s raining,” she whispered, her voice so quiet Anton almost didn’t hear her, “and I found myself wondering if you were perhaps lying here, listening to it.” She finally brought her gaze back to meet Anton’s, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Anton’s throat tightened with emotion as Gwynneth spoke. She had missed her so much. To see her standing there, looking so uncertain and speaking so timidly nearly broke her heart. Still, she managed to whisper back, “I was listening to it...then I must have dozed off.”
Gwynneth nodded, letting Anton’s soft, raspy voice wash over her. Despite her anxiety, hearing that voice again was comforting, and it surprised her. She wasn’t sure, but perhaps because of what she now knew, she expected a different tone or a changed pitch, or something. But it was no different; it was still Anton. “Well,” she began after a moment’s hesitation, “I shall go so that you can rest.”
But just as she made to turn away, Anton called out. “No, wait...please don’t go.” Anton didn’t quite know what she was going to say, but she definitely didn’t want Gwynneth to disappear so quickly.
Gwynneth stopped, her eyes closing as she began to fear what Anton might say or do. She wasn’t ready for this, not yet!
“I...I’ve wanted to see you...wanted to speak with you. Can’t you stay for just...just a moment...?” Anton stumbled as she tried to push herself up into a sitting position.
Gwynneth turned in time to see Anton grimacing and struggling to sit up. A wave of compassion swept over her and she found herself stepping up and placing her hands under her husband’s arm and elbow, helping him scoot back against the head of the bed and get situated.
“Thank you,” Anton whispered once Gwynneth had relinquished her gentle grip. Their eyes flickered over each other again, the awkwardness still palpable. Anton drew a deep breath and released it slowly, garnering her courage. “How are you feeling, Gwynneth...are you well?”
The Lady pursed her lips, “Yes, I’m...I’m as well as I can be, I suppose.”
Anton lowered her eyes, again feeling entirely responsible for her wife’s troubles. “Gwynneth, I...,” she hesitated, guilt and nervousness seizing her. “I want to apologize to you.” She looked up, finding her wife’s blue-green gaze regarding her steadily. “I know you’re angry and upset, and I don’t blame you, but please...please believe me when I say that I never meant to hurt you.” Gwynneth’s eyes closed but Anton continued, “I never wanted to lie to you about who I was, Gwynneth, but I...” Anton hesitated, shaking her head slowly, “I had to.”
The young Lady opened her eyes and looked at her husband, thinking and feeling so many things. Sighing softly, Gwynneth sat down on the very edge of the bed. “There are so many things I don’t understand, so I shan’t pretend that I do.” Gwynneth started hesitantly, her mind a tumult of emotions. “I have so many questions for you...I don’t even know where or how to begin,” she said, her voice a near whisper.
Anton nodded, “I know, and I’ll try my best to explain things to you. I’ll tell you everything, if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want anymore.” Gwynneth closed her eyes and sighed, pressing fingers against her temple. “I’ve been told so many things...I don’t know what to do or what to think.”
“I can only imagine what my mother has said to you and told you...I’m sure there are numerous clarifications that need to be made.”
Gwynneth gave a small huff, “Oh yes...,” she said, her voice becoming bitter sounding, “your mother has explained several things to me. Mostly she’s made it quite clear that I must keep my mouth shut and carry on as though nothing has changed.”
Anton sighed, “Don’t listen to my mother.” She looked pointedly into her wife’s uncertain eyes, “She may posture and threaten all she wants, but she does not speak for me.” Gwynneth averted her gaze, but Anton could see that she still needed reassurance. She moved her hand toward Gwynneth’s thigh until her fingers made contact. Gwynneth’s eyes flew down to the touch, then up to meet her husband’s piercing gaze. “I pledged myself to you, Gwynneth...I promised to provide for you,” Anton said, looking into watery blue-green eyes. “Despite everything...I still care about your well being, and I won’t let any harm come to you.” Gwynneth suddenly looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment, and Anton hated that she was responsible for more sadness. She softened her voice, “Don’t fret over my mother and whatever menacing words she’s spoken to you. I shall see to her. And...I shall see to you too...if you’ll allow me.”
Gwynneth’s chin began to tremble and she didn’t know what to say. She could only nod her head dumbly and look away, fighting to regain her composure. She was tired of being angry and confused, yet she still felt the need to protect herself and guard her feelings. But being here speaking with Anton and hearing his soothing voice was slowing undoing her. It would be easy to resist her husband if he were a cad or a brute. If he were rough or cruel and didn’t care for her in the least, then it would be easy to run away. But Anton wasn’t a brute. He was loving and gentle and treated her with the same care and ease as before. Gazing into his apologetic eyes and listening to his soft words, Gwynneth thought for a moment that it would be easy to forgive and pretend nothing had changed, that things were as before.
Gwynneth’s head began to throb from the intensity of her thoughts. “I...I’m confused, Anton,” she finally said, her voice tremulous. “I still care for you, but...” she shook her head, “I feel so uncertain...I just don’t know what to do about any of this.” A tear broke free, dribbling down her cheek.
Anton moved her hand up to rest on top of Gwynneth’s thigh. “You don’t need to do anything,” she whispered. “Just take care of yourself...and the child.” Gwynneth just nodded and glanced away, swiping at her eyes.
They fell silent as they sat together on the bed, the storm outside providing the only noise. Gwynneth was still turned away from Anton, and the Lord took the opportunity to really look at her wife. She appeared pale and tired, and her hugely swollen abdomen made her look so small. Anton thought that the baby surely must be coming any day. Glancing back to Gwynneth’s face, Anton ran her eyes over every detail; her soft cheeks, dainty nose, rosebud lips. Her small ears were exposed and her thick golden mane of hair was pulled back and twisted behind her head. Anton thought she was still as beautiful as ever. Recollections of what they used to be like together filled her mind, and she closed her eyes, allowing the pleasant memories to wash over her.
Sensing Anton’s stillness, Gwynneth turned back to find him resting silently, his eyes closed, his hand still touching her thigh. She stared at him, considering the things he’d said, and the look in his eyes when he said them. She believed his apologies, and she believed that he had not meant to hurt her. He wasn’t that kind of person, Gwynneth knew. Anton had only ever been kind and loving toward her. Even now, he still wanted to take care of her, still wanted to be chivalrous and protective.
Gwynneth closed her eyes, acknowledging that yes, she did still care for him, and...and she probably still loved him. The question was, could she be or do anything beyond this admittance?
Opening her eyes, she stared at Anton’s face, looking at the angles of his cheeks and chin and thinking that he was still handsome, despite his gaunt appearance. Her gaze wandered down to his lips and she remembered how soft they were. She wondered what it would be like to kiss them now.
Oh my God, She felt herself flush. I still care about him, but things could never be the same with him again...could they? ...I just don’t know! She brought a hand up to her face, covering it as tears began to run freely down her cheeks. She shook her head, wishing the tears would cease. Sniffling, she dropped her hand and reopened her eyes, surprised to find pale blue eyes looking at her with worry.
“Gwynneth...I’m so sorry–”
The Lady held up a hand, “No, don’t...don’t say anymore, please.”
Anton gave her a sad frown. There was so much more she wanted to say to the upset blonde, but she wouldn’t push it.
“I should go. I’m tired, and you need to rest.” Gwynneth stood, but before she turned away, she looked straight into Anton’s eyes. Without warning, she suddenly bent down and kissed her husband soundly on the lips. Breaking the kiss abruptly, she didn’t back away. Instead she looked at Anton strangely, staring deeply into his eyes, wishing she could peer into his soul, wishing he had all the answers to her questions and all the quells for her fears.
Anton could see that Gwynneth was trying to work something out, so she just gave a weak smile and said nothing. She had no idea if Gwynneth was going to slap her, spit on her, or kiss her again. The anticipation made her nervous and she sat very still, looking at her wife softly, wanting and hoping to show her openness and acceptance of whatever Gwynneth decided to do.
Slowly, hesitantly, Gwynneth reached out and touched Anton’s face. She traced a line down his cheek, carefully grazing over the blemishes and bruises that were still evident. She frowned slightly as her fingertips trailed over a healing cut on his chin, then ended her exploration by tracing a path around his lips.
Anton’s heart leapt at the possible implications of the quiet, strange little moment of intimacy, and when Gwynneth leaned in to press their mouths together again, Anton’s hopes soared.
The kiss was a gentle meeting of lips, which Gwynneth was comfortable with. But when Anton brought a hand up to curl around the back of her neck, the young Lady faltered and pulled away.
Dammit...too much too soon. Idiot! Anton scolded herself and held her breath as Gwynneth straightened, looking flushed and embarrassed.
Giving her husband a quick nod, Gwynneth simply whispered, “Goodnight, Anton.”
Anton watched with a heavy heart as his wife turned and exited the room.
Gwynneth lay awake in her room that night, unable to sleep due to the strangely intense meeting she had with her husband.
She’d gone to his room intending only to look upon him again; she hadn’t thought that they would talk, and she certainly hadn’t thought that she’d feel compelled to kiss him. She wasn’t entirely upset by what she’d done, only surprised. Surprised at the feelings that still resonated within her.
The feelings she was experiencing were real; the overwhelming pull and the strong emotional bond she still felt was not simply because she thought Anton was handsome or because she pitied him. She was drawn to him because of something deeper; something inside him...and inside her. But now that I know he’s a woman, Gwynneth wondered, frowning, can I be drawn to him still? Can I be...physical with him? She blushed as she considered the possibilities.
She began to think about Anton’s lips and what it felt like to kiss them again. Then she thought about his shoulders and arms, and she remembered how it used to feel to have him hold her and how his body had always felt against hers; strong, secure, warm. She thought about the muscles of his back and how they felt in her hands when she clutched him tight. She closed her eyes and recalled holding his hips within the vee of her thighs as they made love, and she pictured his face as he rose and fell against her with intensity, whispering words of love and adoration as they climaxed together.
Oh my God...we had such passion...such passion, and it was between two women...how could that be? And now that I know the truth, would it make a difference? Should it make a difference? I still think of him as my husband, as a man, but he isn’t...he’s a woman...I’m attracted to a woman!
Gwynneth knew that if she were honest with herself, she would have to admit that it shouldn’t be such an incredible shock. If she were honest with herself – really honest – she would admit that she’d never really had an interest in men; she had never been attracted to them, physically or sexually. Anton had been the first. Good Lord, she worried, what does that mean?
She knew what the church and society thought about relationships between people of the same sex, and that thought made her wonder further: was Anton really attracted to women rather than men? Or was their physical relationship just a further extension of the male role he had to play? Gwynneth remembered wondering why Anton didn’t have other lovers on the side, as most men did – could it be because he didn’t really want a woman? Was he only with her because he had to be with her? Oh my God...no, that can’t be! Gwynneth cringed in fear and her eyes burned with the threat of tears.
Her mind immediately flashed back to their intimate moments together. They were so compatible and had an undeniable chemistry, both in and out of the bed chambers...their lovemaking was so beautiful and perfect...their feelings genuine.
Something like that can’t be feigned, she considered. Our feelings were real...are real. ...Oh God, I do still love him.
Gwynneth suddenly felt exhausted, as though she couldn’t possibly have any more tears left to cry nor any sorrow left to flow. She didn’t know if she’d solved any problems with her soul-searching tonight, but somehow, in some way, she thought she felt a little more at ease. She could only hope that it would last.
Anton was awakened by noises. At first her ears were greeted only by the sound of the thundering rainstorm outside her window, but soon she picked up on other unusual noises as well. Murmuring voices, opening and closing doors, and hurried footsteps traveling back and forth could be heard above the storm.
Wrapping herself in a robe, she struggled out of bed, grabbed the cane she was just learning to use, and hobbled out into the hallway. As she walked further down the corridor, the door to Gwynneth’s chamber opened and Alice came out, carrying some bloody linens.
“Alice!” Anton called out, “What the devil is going on?”
The maid looked frightened, “My Lord,” she bowed awkwardly, “Lady Gwynneth...she’s giving birth, and tisn’t going well!”
Anton’s eyes grew huge and her heart plummeted. She hadn’t seen nor spoken with Gwynneth for the past two days and she had not inquired after her, figuring that the young woman just needed some time alone to think. Now she wished she had checked on her. Reacting instinctively, Anton quickly began to push past Alice, toward Gwynneth’s room, but the maid grabbed her arm.
“Oh my Lord! No!” she shook her head and dropped her hand quickly, aware of the inappropriate way in which she’d touched her Lord. “I’m sorry, sire, but you must not go in! ‘Tis bad luck for the father to be present!”
“But I’m not—” Anton stopped abruptly before she said too much. Frowning, she covered her mistake, “...I’m not afraid of a silly superstition. I must be with her!” She turned away from the maid and pushed through Gwynneth’s door.
As soon as she entered the chambers, Anton’s senses were assaulted by the smell of blood, sweat and other odors she couldn’t identify. It was difficult to see and the only thing she could hear was someone panting in pain and the soothing murmur of another’s voice. She walked toward the bed, pushing the canopy curtains aside when she reached it.
Marina was sitting on the bed, gently dabbing Gwynneth’s forehead with a wet cloth as she spoke hushed words to her. Gwynneth lay slightly propped up on the bed, her face pale, her hair completely saturated with sweat. She was covered by a light sheet, which was also wetted by sweat. Her eyes were closed and her mouth hung open as she heaved great groaning breaths.
Anton’s heart almost broke at the sight before her. “Mother,” she whispered softly.
Marina looked up in surprise, “Anton, what are you doing here!” her voice was harsh.
Anton shook her head slowly, “I...I heard the commotion.” She gazed down at Gwynneth’s ashen face. “Is something wrong?”
“No. Nothing’s wrong.” Marina snapped. “You shouldn’t be here. Go back to bed.”
Gwynneth interrupted with a sobbing sigh. Her body tensed and she cringed with agony, clutching at the bed clothes and moaning loudly as another pain began.
Marina quickly grasped the young woman’s hand and began to murmur more words of reassurance and encouragement while a midwife pushed the sheet aside to peer between Gwynneth’s legs.
Another woman approached the Marchioness Dowager. “Milady, the physician’s been alerted. He’s on his way.”
“Thank god. Has Alice returned with more cloth and fresh water?”
“No, Milady, not yet.”
Marina’s eyes flashed in annoyance, “Well go and find her. We need that water!”
“Yes’m.” The woman scurried away quickly.
Anton watched the events with wide-eyed fear and worry. She felt utterly helpless and terribly afraid.
As the pain came to an end, Gwynneth’s body visibly relaxed. Her eyes remained closed and she returned to panting softly. Marina dabbed her forehead again before standing. “Sit with her a moment, will you?” she asked the midwife, who nodded.
Marina walked around the bed and slipped an arm around Anton’s waist, tugging her toward the door. “Come, Anton. You must leave.”
When they reached the hallway, Anton turned to the older woman, “Mother, why do you need Victor?”
Marina wiped at her face and sighed wearily. “We believe there are two babies, my dear.”
Anton’s eyes bulged. “What? Two!”
“Yes, twins.” Marina tried to smile weakly. “And as wonderful as that is, it makes it that much more dangerous for Gwynneth. She’s a small girl, and the babes are in a poor presentation, so I want Victor to be here in case...” Her voice trailed off and Anton gave her a horrified look. Marina’s expression became grave, “If things do not go well, I fear one of them, or even all three of them, may not survive the night.”
Anton’s heart plummeted and she shook her head slowly, “No...no, that won’t happen. I won’t let it happen.”
“There’s nothing you can do, Anton.” Marina rested a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Go back to bed...say a prayer.” She touched her cheek, “I’ll keep you apprised of things as best I can, I promise.” She turned and disappeared back into Gwynneth’s chambers.
Anton watched her go, feeling her heart clutch in terrible, desperate anxiety. Indeed there was nothing she could do, and she hated that. Instead, she would do what her mother asked; she would go back to her room and she would pray. She would say a hundred prayers if it saved the life of her beloved Gwynneth and the babies.
Reaching her room, Anton sat down on her bed and let her head drop into her hands as she felt the first sting of tears in her eyes.
It was going to be a long, sleepless night for everyone.
++++++...To Be Continued in Part 14...
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